rogue states with tasty intestines

Syria’s happy quirks do a lot to contradict its status as a rogue state. Our room in Aleppo was freakishly furnished like my childhood at Gran’s place; the groans of Hama’s famous water wheels sound like a track from Dark Side of the Moon; Palmyra town, despite its distinct post-apocalyptic flavour, happens to be home to the nicest manager of the worst hotel in the Middle East. And Mark Twain has the final word on Damascus:

Damascus measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.

Aleppo is a great town and, as we’ve mentioned previously, the souk is really where it’s at, with every twist and turn of its winding alleyways revealing another pungent aroma, tasty morsel or incongruous spectacle. Apart from taking a tour of every ATM in the Old City, we spent an intriguing morning visiting the many churches of the Christian Quarter, which are as beautiful as they are thought-provoking. In a nice display of ecumenical spirit, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic churches share the same courtyard where there is a small museum housing ecclesiastical treasures that escaped the genocide in Turkey. We spent about half an hour chatting to the attendant, a passionate and proud Armenian woman, discussing Aleppo’s absorption of the tens of thousands of Armenians refugees from that time.

From Aleppo, we took a day-trip to the Dead Cities and St Simeon Basilica, which commemorates the ascetic “pillar-hermit” who spent 36 years sitting atop an obelisk. Not much of the pillar remains, thanks to centuries of pilgrims souveniring chunks of it, but much of the beautiful Crusader-era structure is still standing, making it easy to picture the former grandeur that, no doubt, its namesake would have utterly disapproved of. The Dead Cities are not best appreciated whilst wearing Havaianas, but fascinating nonetheless.


Hama was our base for a road trip to Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins of Apamea. Crac des Chevaliers is often described as a castle of childhood imaginings, which pretty much nails it – our juvenile behaviour belied our ever-advancing age as we ran around the ramparts keeping an eye out for the armies of Mordor. Apamea impresses with its rows of Roman columns and ruts in the stone road where caravans and chariots from millennia past have left their impression; try as we might to get a photo, it still just looks like a bunch of flagstones.

More of Syria’s oddities include: an omnipresent, dynastic ophthalmologist president-for-life; chicken shwarma with way too much pickle and mayo; more conspiracy theories than a busload of backpacking Frenchmen, and the infamous “waterfall wash technique.” Dust, dirt or debris in your building? Don’t vacuum, sweep or mop! Just hook up a hose at the top of the stairs, turn it on and sit back for a few hours. Darn any damage to carpet, guests’ bags, adjoining businesses and the technique’s inability to actually clean anything – you’ve just made yourself an indoor water feature!

Sunrise is a visiting time often recommended by sites around the world. Sometimes it works out and sometimes you’re at the Taj Mahal for five hours, waiting for the fog to lift. Palmyra looked glorious from a hill high above – it felt like our own little piece of Syria. Nice and cool too – by 11am, the whole place is a furnace. We spent the rest of the day avoiding sandstorms and amorous Bedouins who’d taken a shine to our dorm mate, talking World Cup with the overwhelmingly hospitable Mohammed and sipping tea.

In Damascus, we managed to meet up with some friends from Annapurna, the lovely Megumi and Nev. Not surprisingly, much of the evening consisted of exchanges of “how bad was [insert thing in India]?!?!” It won’t surprise many of you that my statements became increasingly “bold” and “imaginative” as the evening wore on and the arak set in. I’ve since found out that the pour here is none of this homogeneous “standard measure” banality but, at the very least, 1:1. Yikes. Thankfully, Megumi and Nev are forgiving types.

Thanks to the great resource of Syrian Foodie, we enjoyed many a gourmet adventure in Damascus. Al-Mouselli shwarma was a favourite – unlike the usual mutton or chook, the meat on offer is beef which is served with a rather wonderful sour pomegranate sauce and lashings of extras. It was so good we started involuntarily making those Maeve O’Meara-style “mmmmm, ahhhh” noises so hated by Tommy Bell and, presumably, everyone else. Second on the list and only just passing the “French test”* was seja’at (rice stuffed goat intestines), the real highlight of which was the funky cooking broth served alongside. We were both pretty excited about the Narenj Restaurant, reputedly one of the best in Syria, where we had a “tonight cost three nights in our hotel” meal.** Perhaps our expectations were too high or we didn’t order well but it was a little disappointing; a barn of a place, it seemed like half of Damascus was there, although the night was somewhat rescued late in the piece by absurdly large plates of fruit and sweets, on the house, and spying on nearby courting couples.

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* When pondering a meal, ask yourself: “Would the French eat this?” If yes, tuck in. If no, it’s not worth eating. Test failures include bugs, vermin and eyeballs. No one needs that.

** Admittedly, given our fiscally-challenged state, it’s not hard to accumulate a bill of such proportions and given we had a few hefty glasses of wine too, still very reasonable.

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